One look in his eyes and the suffering was there for all the world to see. Despite being one of the world’s premiere funny men, Robin Williams was tortured by demons many of us, myself included, have battled. Shocked is a good way to describe much of the reaction to his death. Shock first of all that he’s dead, but that shock is compounded by the manner in which he died. And as the details are revealed, the mourning deepens.
How can one be so funny while (my own term) dangling over the Jaws of Hell? And not dangling just out of the reach of demons, but dangling and having flesh shredded by those demons? Look at video of Williams performing. The humor is there. The genius is evident. But look at his eyes. Really look. Do they look happy? Does the smile reach them? Generally, no. His well-documented struggle with alcoholism was a dual-edged sword. It was an attempt self-medicate the demons into submission but since alcohol is itself a depressant, it just made matters worse. While drunk, though, at least the demons can be ignored. Their collective voices, the taunting, the jeers, can be ignored.
Humor is frequently used as a mask. Think of Chris Farley and his own brand of fat jokes, making funny at his own expense. Make people laugh “at” him while making them believe they’re laughing “with” him. Does that make sense? Beat them to the punch. No doubt he honed this humor while growing up. The weight was the gorilla in the middle of the room. Bring it up first, make people laugh, put them at ease about it, and gain acceptance. Otherwise, become the butt of jokes and ostracized. Everyone likes to hang out with the funny guy. Forget that each joke carves another wound. The wounds are invisible.
Williams’ humor wasn’t directed at himself, but might be considered a wall. I know people who suffer from profound depression yet are extremely funny. I recently read a great article (sorry I can’t cite it as I can’t find it now) that describes the process very well. Depression and the resulting pain (both emotional and physical) are uncomfortable for others to be around. What does one say? How does one react? How does one treat and talk to someone suffering from deep depression…or even mild depression? Easier to ignore it. So, create a mask. People like those who are funny. Most of us like to laugh and someone who can make us laugh on a regular basis is a treasure.
But if that mask is dropped, what then? If the emotional despair is allowed to peek out, discomfort sets in in those around the demon-haunted. “Wait. This person is funny. How come he/she seems so down? And how am I supposed to act?” The situation is uncomfortable and the humor is pulled back out of the hat to dispel the discomfort. A sigh goes up among the “friends”. (Insert name here) is back to normal! Let the good times continue. Do they see the pain in the eyes? Do they realize or even care that the humor hides a damaged soul?
I’m not going to write about what should or should not be said to someone who lets down his/her guard and drops the mask, even temporarily. You have to decide for yourself how comfortable you are with hearing the unvarnished truth. You see, the problem isn’t when someone is being serious. It’s when the chronically depressed is being funny. That’s when he/she feels there’s no option, no one around who can take the truth.
No. I’m not going to write about that. The situation is as individual as, well, an individual. Instead, this is about the demons faced by Williams, myself, and others like us. You see, I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, the demons steal. They lie. They steal joy, family time, appreciating the waves breaking on shore and a beautiful sunset. They steal enjoying a rare family gathering as children grow up and go their separate ways in life. They steal enjoying a quiet moment with a spouse. They steal hope. They steal peace and comfort. They also lie. They say there’s no chance of anything becoming better. They tell you it’s hopeless, nothing will change. They speak unmentionable things to the depressed. Mainly, they say the only way out of the pain is to just check out of life.
Oh, I could go on and on about the demons. And that’s why Williams’ suicide has affected me so much. Unlike many of us, he had everything, including the means to obtain the best medical care money can buy, yet he could not run away from his demons. Those demons. I know them. I’ve battled them. Right now my arsenal is keeping them at bay. They’ve helped me win the battle, and hopefully they’ll help me win the war. Williams lost his war. It’s the knowledge of what he was facing, how far down in the hole he was, how hopeless it all seemed that hurts me. I would hurt just as much for anyone in such a position, it’s just that Williams is a public figure with a very public death. But knowing what he faced, how utterly alone he felt, how hopeless the situation appeared to be, that’s what’s affected me. I’ve been there. And I sincerely hope and pray I’m never there again.